Major Engineering Projects in the Water Sector

Major engineering projects are large-scale and complex projects that typically cost much more than USD 1 billion, require years to decades to be developed and constructed, affect large areas – very often across political and geographical boundaries, involve many public and private stakeholders, induce transformational processes, and may impact millions of people (Flyvbjerg 2014). In the water sector, such megaprojects encompass interbasin water-transfer projects, large-scale wetland drainage and irrigation schemes, navigation canals, drinking water facilities and sewage treatment plants for large cities, large dams, flood control and coastal protection measures, and major restoration schemes (Table 4.2). Furthermore, many small engineering projects may have cumulative effects that are similar to the effects caused by individual megaprojects.

The monetary scale of the investment is often inversely correlated with the potential for future adaptation and modification. Indeed, the lifespan of major water infrastructure projects is a century, and more, therefore new ideas and creativity now get “fixed”. It means that the decisions we make now will heavily constrain the options we will have later.

Interbasin Water-Transfer Projects

Interbasin transfer projects (IBTs) are considered as an approved engineering solution meeting the accelerating demands for water to secure food production, support economic development and reduce poverty. To compensate for the increasingly

Table 4.2 Selected major water engineering projects globally (name, type, expected construction costs, planned construction time, short description and potential consequences)



Brief description

Costs [billion USD]


(Environmental) Impacts


Nicaragua Canal


286 km long navigation canal (90 km through Lake Nicaragua), 27.6 m deep, 520 m wide



Relocation of indigenous people (hundreds of villages); no environmental feasibility study released so far, but impacts expected on Lake Nicaragua (salt intrusion, sedimentation, invasive species, pollution) and destruction of around 400,000 ha of pristine rainforests and wetlands

Meyer and Huete-Pérez (2014)


Emergency Water Transfer Project (Tarim River Restoration Project)

Restoration/ transfer

Artificial canal to divert water (annual average: 320 × 106 m3) from Lake Bostan and the Daxihaizi Reservoir to the Tarim River



Transfers depend on the hydrological condition of the Kaidn-Konqui River system (Bostan Lake); ecosystem integrity strengthened

Li et al. (2009), Zhang

et al. (2010), and Sun et al. (2011)



Table 4.2 (continued)



Brief description

Costs [billion USD]


(Environmental) Impacts


Grand Melen Project


water transfer from Grand Melen Stream to Istanbul through a 180 km long transmission line; annually 268 × 106 m3 at Stage I,

1.18 × 109 m3 total at Stage IV


Stage I finalised in 2011

One town and 16 villages are expected to be covered by water with the project

WWF Germany (2008)


Lesotho Highlands Water Project


five dams and about 200 km of tunnels; transfer of water from Orange/Senqu River (Lesotho) to Vaal River (South

Africa) ~ 2,000 × 106 m3 per year



displacement of 17 villages, loss of agricultural land for 71 villages, and degradation of water quality; began without an environmental impact assessment for the overall project

WWF Global Freshwater Programme (2007)

Lesotho/South Africa

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan

Transfer/ restoration

two tunnels, each 40 ft high and 35 miles long, under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta


Construction start in 2017

could decrease fresh water flows to San Francisco Bay, could harm endangered fish in a different part of the estuary, will permanently transform the Delta

California Department

of Water Resources (2014) and Safe the Bay (2014)


Emscher River Master Plan


A 30-year regional regeneration program involves water quality

improvements and physical rehabilitation of the river network


Restoration start in 1991

Once an open sewer in one of the most populated areas in Europe, the catchment of the Emscher River is one of the most ambitious restoration projects actually carried out in Germany

Schwarze‐Rodrian and

Bauer (2005)


Restoration and remediation of coal mining areas


Avoidance and source treatment, natural attenuation of acidity loads, remediation in constructed wetlands and underground treatment, in-lake and outflow treatments

9 (during the past 20 years)

Restoration of coal mining areas

The restoration of open-cast mining areas in Germany, as well as in Poland and other countries, is a long-lasting task because the large areas affected, delay effects, and the challenge to combine geoengineering with ecological engineering approaches. Formation of novel ecosystems and communities.

Geller et al. (2013)


uneven distribution of water, IBTs are regaining popularity (WWF Global Freshwater Programme 2007). However, many of the IBTs either planned or under construction are too big and complex to imagine their consequences, and they may distort the economic, social and environmental conditions of entire countries and regions. Donor and recipient systems will be affected alike.

The South-North Project in China, the Indian Rivers Linking Project, the Transaqua Project in Africa, the Sibaral Project in Central Asia and many more projects are at various stages of development and implementation. Projects that are in a very preliminary stage of planning may rapidly emerge and gain wide support when political and social circumstances change, or when major disasters occur (Table 4.2).

With the objective to provide water for more than 500 million people, the South-North IBT in China is one of the largest water engineering projects already under construction (Berkoff 2003). By 2050, about 45 × 109 m3 water per year will be diverted through three branches from the Yangtze basin to northern and western China. The estimated costs are about USD 60 billion. The 1,264 km long Central Route was opened in 2014. 330,000 people were resettled. Moreover, plans exist for a much larger transfer project, namely to divert up to 200 × 109 m3 water from the major rivers in SW China, including the upper sections of the Mekong, Brahmaputra and Salween Rivers, to the water-thirsty regions in northern and eastern China. This project is actually on halt because of the transboundary nature of the affected river basins.

The Indian Rivers Linking Project (ILR) might become the largest water infrastructure project ever undertaken globally (Shah et al. 2008; Bagla 2014). It is planned to build 30 links and about 300 reservoirs and to connect 37 Himalayan and Peninsular rivers to form a gigantic water grid system on the Indian subcontinent. The canals are 50–100 m wide and 6 m deep to allow navigation. In total, 178 × 109 m3 water per year will be redistributed. For comparison, the annual discharge of the Rhine River at its mouth is 75 × 109 m3. The total length of the planned canal network is 15,000 km, 30 million ha of newly irrigated area are expected to be created, and 35 GW hydropower should be produced (although a significant proportion of the energy will be required for the transfer of the water). The costs at this stage can only be estimated to amount three times the total costs of China's South-North water-transfer scheme.

Transaqua, the largest water infrastructure project planned in Africa, is intended to divert 100 × 109 m3 (in average 3,200 m3/s) from the Congo Basin, through a 2,400 km navigable canal, to the Chari River and finally to Lake Chad. It is intended to stabilise the lake area at about 7,500 km2 and create large irrigation areas north of the lake. Planning dates back to the late 1970s. Actually, the project re-emerges to the surface. The estimated costs are USD 23 billion. An alternative and much smaller option, the Obangi Water-Transfer Project, is expected to transfer 320 m3/s to Lake Tschad (Freeman and DeToy 2014). Up to now, no feasibility study has been carried out. However, there exists hope that the Chinese, within the frame of their Silk Road Fund, may invest into this project.

The almost complete drying of the Aral Sea is one of the largest global environmental disasters. Ideas to divert water from Siberia to Central Asia already emerged during the Tzarist period in the late nineteenth century. The concrete planning of the Sibaral Project (from Siberia to Aral Sea), together with plans to nourish the Volga River through a transfer from western Siberian rivers, started during the Soviet era, but had been abruptly stopped in 1986 by Michael Gorbachev. More recently, it is enjoying again favour among various actors in Central Asia and in Russia as well. The archived construction plans for the 2,540 km long Sibaral canal are actually unearthed from the various institutes previously involved in the planning (Micklin 1977; Pearce 2009; Singh 2012). Sibaral is an example where the consequences of poor catchment management are expected to be solved through an immense engineering megaproject, which again is associated with probably very high economic, social, and environmental risks and costs, although a calculation of the costs and risks must remain a very rough estimate at this stage.

For North America, at least 15 separate projects have been proposed but not (yet) realised during the past century to reshape the continental water courses (Forest and Forest 2012). The most popular and ambitious proposal has been the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA), which would have reconfigured the water courses through dams, canals, pipelines, etc. It is very hard to imagine the dimensions of this project (e.g. Barr 1975; Micklin 1977). It has been proposed to divert 20 % of the flow from the northern rivers, mainly from the Peace and Yukon rivers in Alaska and British Columbia, southward to a huge, 800 km long excavation called the Rocky Mountain Trench. From there, water would be diverted to the Great Lakes, to SW USA and finally to Mexico. The annual volume of water provided could be up to 300 × 109 m3 per year, the estimated costs are between USD 420 billion and USD 1.4 trillion, and three million jobs are projected to be created. The concept had been called “grand and imaginative” (Abelson 1965), while Luton (1965) replied: “[…] let us wait until we know our doom is at hand, and when our last realisable ambition is to amaze future archeologists”.

For a long time, plans have existed in Australia to move water from the waterrich northern areas to the southern parts of the continent (e.g., Kimberley to Perth Scheme, Bradfield Scheme, South-East Queensland water grid). However, local solutions such as improved use efficiency, recycling of water, desalinisation and reduced consumption prove to be economically, socially and environmentally much more sustainable than the long-distance transfer of water (Australian Government 2010).

Sudan and Egypt jointly began the construction of the Jonglei Canal in the 1970s (Salman 2011). The canal was meant to increase the downstream flow of the Nile waters by diverting water away from the vast wetlands where a high proportion of water is lost by evapotranspiration. The project, which was funded to a large extent by the World Bank, stopped in 1983 at about 100 km short of completion when the civil war between North and South Sudan started.

There are several other large-scale projects in the planning and construction phase throughout the African continent, including projects in Botswana, Namibia Lesotho, Morocco and other areas. Similar projects exist for southern Europe, Greece and Spain in particular, and for Turkey, but also for South America, in particular Brazil.

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